Fresh off of a 2-0 win over rival Duke on Saturday, the No. 1 UNC field hockey team will return to Jack Katz Stadium in Durham for the ACC Championship this week.
The Tar Heels’ first game will take place on Wednesday at 1 p.m. against either Syracuse or Boston College. If UNC wins, the Tar Heels will progress to the championship game at 2 p.m. on Friday.
The Tar Heels are looking to stay undefeated and capture the team’s 25th ACC Championship. If the Tar Heels continue to have dominant goalkeeping performances, success in penalty corners and effective offensive facilitation, UNC should be well on its way to adding another conference tournament trophy to its case.
Dominance in goal
First-year Kylie Walbert and sophomore Abigail Taylor have split time in goal so far this season and have combined for eight shutouts.
Taylor has been especially dominant — holding the highest goalie win-loss percentage in the nation while also recording the country’s third-best goals against average at .88.
It’s important to note that UNC’s stingy defense, anchored by ACC Defender of the Year Meredith Sholder, is partially responsible for the success of this goalkeeping duo by preventing the ball from progressing into the shooting circle. However, the continual poise of Taylor and Walbert has proved to be a difference-maker in the momentum of many games in this season.
While close games are rare for the Tar Heels due to their potent offense, the ACC Championship and its competitiveness is an entirely different beast from the regular season, making Taylor and Walbert’s performances in goal even more critical to the success of UNC this upcoming week.
Capitalize on penalties
Penalty corners are a rare aspect of the game that the Tar Heels struggled with early on in the season.
Shelton has said that when her team enters the shooting circle, they want “50 percent of that time to either be a shot on goal, a penalty corner or a goal”. For a good portion of the season, UNC was goal-hungry, not focusing enough on finding the easy shot by drawing a penalty corner.
This month, however, UNC is now a top-25 team in penalty corners, jumping up 12 places from No. 34 in the nation earlier this month. This improvement will prove useful in potential matchups against tough ACC opponents like Wake Forest, the No. 2 seed in the ACC Championship.
In their 2-0 win over Duke, UNC earned its first goal of the close matchup off of a penalty corner. Earlier this month, North Carolina opened both its 3-1 win over UVA and 6-1 win over Syracuse with Sietske Brüning goals off of penalty corners.
If the Tar Heels look to earn the penalty corner early in the game, it should set the tone in its ACC matchups and lead to success in this week’s conference tournament.
Spread the ball
While UNC senior forward and record-breaking five-time ACC Offensive Player of the Year Erin Matson is known for her scoring prowess, her abilities as a facilitator are not recognized nearly as often.
Matson acts like the quarterback of North Carolina’s offense, which should look to continue its skillful play in the shooting circle in the ACC Championship. The squad has upped its game over the course of the season, pulling off no-look passes amongst other flashy plays in recent games.
Much of UNC’s efficiency on offense comes from its constant movement, as Matson, sophomore midfielder Jasmina Smolenaars and ACC Freshman of the Year Ryleigh Heck, among others, can be seen constantly cutting to the goal when playing off the ball. Pair this with North Carolina’s quick passing and transition ability, and UNC’s high-powered offense has all the tools needed to succeed this week.
For a UNC team that ranks No. 1 in the country in goals and points per game, scoring average and scoring margin, the Tar Heels simply need to rely on the cohesion they’ve built over the course of the season to continue this offensive dominance.
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